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Not all small-scale genre pictures are created alike. Some semi-obscure 1950s sci-fi and horror thrillers are laughably dated and others are just misunderstood. A lucky few transcend their own mediocrity. I propose a reappraisal for the lowly 1957 double-bill denizen She Devil, produced by an un-credited Robert L. Lippert and directed by Kurt Neumann, the man best known for the popular 1958 sci-fi horror classic, the original The Fly. She Devil is also sourced from a fantastic short story that, tangentially at least, involves flies. But mostly it is a medical-horror update of the archaic, ultra-conservative Alraune axiom: artificially manipulated life forms are by definition Evil, even beautiful women. Especially beautiful women.
If they are fortunate to find themselves the subject of serious discussion, most sci-fi pictures of the 1950s are quickly linked to anxieties about atomic extinction or other fears associated with creeping technology -- alienation, loss of identity. She Devil instead chooses to examine gender relations, with outrageous results. The movie's impressively undiluted sexism shows no overt signs of deliberate parody or even a satirical edge; the whole thing is played straight. We're told that it was produced so quickly that there was likely little time for anyone concerned to ask what kind of movie was being made. Commercial films that utilize generic formulas sometimes take shape without the conscious intervention of an "author's message." Already notorious among hipsters as an unintentional comedy, the engagingly misogynist She Devil may be the most unconsciously "political" gender-based fantasy of the goofy '50s monster craze. It is ripe for rediscovery.
As has been pointed out by author Tom Weaver, She Devil is basically My Fair Lady with an Eliza Doolittle character that transforms not into a lady, but a fiendish murderer. Retired M.D. and benevolent hospital executive Dr. Richard Bach (Albert Dekker) has invited brilliant researcher Dr. Dan Scott (Jack Kelly) to set up a lab in his mansion. Between experiments the cohabiting doctors sip martinis served by their housekeeper Hannah (Blossom Rock, Grandma on TV's The Addams Family. They seem a very comfortable platonic couple. Dan explains that he has isolated the factor that allows fruit flies to easily adapt themselves to new environmental conditions. Dan has already given his 'adaptive' serum to various small animals: hamsters are cured of pneumonia and a cat's broken spine has mended. A panther has recovered from severe lacerations... and also changed the color of its fur. The doctors overcome their moral qualms and try out the serum on a terminal TB patient, Kyra Zelas (Mari Blanchard), who is at the point of death. The woman recovers overnight and, grateful to Dan, moves in with her benefactors. But Kyra also undergoes a radical personality change. She becomes ruthlessly violent in a high-class dress shop, clubbing a man for his money to buy a new wardrobe. Kyra also discovers that she has the ability to change her hair color. She shows no contrition when confronted with her criminal actions and threatens to expose her hosts' illegal experiments unless they stop interfering and allow her to do everything she wants. At Bach's hospital charity party Kyra's glowing blonde hair attracts the attention of married millionaire Barton Kendall (John Archer), much to the dismay of his wife Evelyn (Fay Baker). Dan is also upset, as by this time he has fallen for Kyra as well. Kyra is attracted to him but won't allow sentiment to interfere with her plans -- she intends to kill Evelyn, marry Barton and take control of his vast fortune. Realizing that they've created a monster, Richard and Dan decide to put a stop to Kyra's crime spree. The only problem is that her system can 'adapt' to most any injury, and also any sedative they might use.
Let's dispense with She Devil's silly-science first... individual fruit flies don't alter their bodies to new conditions, they pass on their adaptations to successive generations. Although we expect our buddy team of doctors to create some sort of physical monster, Kyra's only new super-powers are immunity to disease, rapid healing and the ability to change her hair color at will. With her distinctive wide-set eyes, strikingly beautiful actress Mari Blanchard would be recognizable with her head shaved. But when her hair changes from black to blonde, neither the dress store's owner nor Evelyn Kendall initially recognize her.
If Carroll Young and Kurt Neumann's screenplay is a fair indicator of male-female relations in our society, something is very seriously amiss. Kyra is correct to be concerned that her doctors treat her like a lab guinea pig. Richard and Dan conspire quietly and then present Kyra with condescending explanations of what they're up to. It's a paternalistic, authoritative world out there. The familiar phrase heard more than once is "we know what's best for you". Women have traditionally gone along to get along, but the assertive, liberated Kyra is having none of that: she robs and murders to get what she wants. 1950s films routinely dressed ordinary housewives in fashions that only the wealthy could hope to afford. To reach her full alluring potential, Kyra needs a wardrobe. She is simply taking care of business, getting what's necessary in a society that doesn't value a woman without material adornments.
So, the film's "monster" is simply a gal that won't submit to patriarchal authority or play a submissive role. Richard and Dan instinctively understand that this is social heresy, that Kyra must be destroyed. We the audiences are meant to agree. Although no previous dialogue suggested a religious context, Richard is suddenly talking about the balance of good and evil and "what is meant to be". They are the creators, therefore they are responsible. Saving Kyra's life was a mistake and now they must do something about it. Compounding its sexist bias, the script now has the doctors plot a "moral" killing. It's a pretty scary idea, not thought out to its logical extreme. It never occurs to Richard and Dan that doctors aren't responsible for the moral activities of their patients. They claim that Dan's serum changed Kyra, just as the leopard became more aggressive. As in Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life, whatever 'demons' were released by the serum were surely already a part of her personality. Plenty of people make lifestyle changes following an illness.
The doctors' definition of responsibility is frighteningly selective. Their plan is to reverse the effect of Dan's serum, which will leave Kyra as she was, doomed to die. They rationalize their actions with pious resolve: "it was pre-ordained".
When genre-based film criticism reached a peak in the early 1970s articles appeared that probed the dark recesses of "B" genre films for traces of a sexist conspiracy. They found plenty of evidence in films now considered howlers: Voodoo Woman, The Wasp Woman, The Leech Woman. What wasn't acknowledged is that most of these films were written by men, reshuffling conventional formulas that had been around for decades, if not centuries. Conservative notions were bound to slip into the mix. Just the same, She Devil's gender politics are more than just Camp fun -- they're a concrete expression of social attitudes that more 'sophisticated' entertainments try to gloss over.
These days, if we don't side with the enterprising Kyra Zelas, we certainly see a world populated with her ethical sisters (and brothers). Kyra wants wealth and power, and as long as she gets them the "how" is of no importance. She Devil's real fantasy is the divide between the way films once portrayed society's workings, and how things really function. Aggressive, selfish behavior always received its comeuppance in movies made under the Production Code, which would not tolerate challenges to a narrowly conceived universal moral code. It's entirely possible that the semi-religious posture struck in She Devil's last act was added to keep the censors at bay.
The B&W "Regalscope" format gives this modest production a handsome look, along with Kurt Neumann's competent if not stylish direction. Cameraman Karl Struss (of Murnau's Sunrise) slightly over-lights Kyra in the party scene to make her hair seem to glow, a subtle effect for sure. The hair-color changing is a filter trick, an invention Struss first used back in the silent era. A spectacular car crash murder scene is an RKO stock shot lifted from the 1952 Otto Preminger noir Angel Face and cropped for the 'scope format. It still looks frightening. Suggesting an undeveloped noir angle, a "haunting" portrait of Kyra becomes the focus of Dan's obsession. It's supposed to be the work of an Italian master, but looks more like a Paint By Numbers atrocity. Author Stanley G. Weinbaum's original short story "The Adaptive Ultimate" had already been staged more than once for radio and television, the most recent being a 1955 episode of TV's Science Fiction Theater. 2
The acting is completely professional. Our association of Albert Dekker with more villainous roles (Doctor Cyclops, Kiss Me Deadly, The Wild Bunch) now makes his Dr. Bach seem a little less benign, especially when he's devising elaborate ways to discreetly do away with Kyra. Mari Blanchard was a standout beauty in minor parts. Her most hopeful career break came when she was cast opposite Audie Murphy in Destry, a remake of the Marlene Dietrich film. Suffering from polio as a child, Ms. Blanchard fell victim to cancer at an early age.
The fascinating story-behind-the-story of Regal Films has been revealed in published interviews conducted by Tom Weaver. 1 Although his name appears on none of the pictures, independent producer Robert L. Lippert was head of the outfit. Sometime around 1955, Lippert tried to avoid residual payments when he sold his films to Television. The Guilds were quick to retaliate, and he found himself unable to do business in Hollywood. But Lippert outwitted the industry ban via a deceptive production deal with 20th-Fox. He ran Regal Films with close associates and kept his personal involvement a secret. On this film, director Kurt Neumann takes a solo producing credit. This arrangement held for many movies, including Kronos and The Fly, which was boosted to semi- "A" status and went out as a straight Fox release. Under a different company name Lippert continued to turn out product for Fox -- The Alligator People (another hoot, gender issues-wise), The Return of the Fly and The Day Mars Invaded Earth. Lippert didn't take another film credit until he relocated to England in the early 1960s.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of She Devil is in great shape and is presented in its original 2.35:1 "Regalscope" aspect ratio. Until now the only way it could be seen was on pan-scanned flat copies that ruined what are fairly attractive compositions. A light scratch runs partway through the first reel and other imperfections are visible, but the show overall is in spectacular shape.
She Devil was originally a co-feature with the quite different sci-fi thriller Kronos, made by practically the exact same production team.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
She Devil Blu-ray rates:
1. Author Tom Weaver was the first to click off the similarities between She Devil and the musical stage hit My Fair Lady, which had opened the year before. The passages about Robert Lippert were taken from an interview with director Maury Dexter, in Weaver's recommended book I Talked with a Zombie: Interviews With 23 Veterans of Horror and Sci-Fi Films and Television
Glenn -- I skimmed the Stanley G. Weinbaum short story that was the basis of She Devil. The movie is in general pretty faithful, even reproducing some of the dialogue. Some notable differences:
Instead of assaulting a man in a dress shop, Kyra attacks a man in a park and takes his wallet. She is immediately arrested and put on trial, but acquited because of her hair color change.
The story puts more emphasis on Kyra's following sudden whims. One day she casually announces that she has killed a child. She was out walking, decided to steal a car and accidentally hit a child. She shows no remorse.
In the story there is no marriage to a millionare. Instead, Kyra announces that she will pursue power. She leaves the two doctors and disappears for a while. A few weeks later she turns up in the gossip columns, linked to the Secretary of the Treasury at Washington D.C. parties. There are rumors of her possibly influencing policy, but after a while she grows bored and returns to the doctors. -- Gary
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